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Gail Russell: Dark Angel


Fifty years ago, an actress died in a small Brentwood apartment. Her name was Gail Russell, and she was only 36 years old. Empty liquor bottles were found, and her death was not a surprise to anyone in Hollywood. Gail Russell was not only one of the great beauties of her age but she was a star on the rise at Paramount in the 1940s. Gail Russell's first starring film, The Uninvited, was a smash hit, and she was promoted as the next big female star. Hits like The Unseen and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay followed. Russell then made two films with superstar John Wayne, including the classic Angel and the Badman. Gail Russell also married one of the hottest movie hunks in history, Guy Madison, in 1949. She had it all—or did she?

Cut to July 6, 1957. A drunken Gail Russel drove her brand-new car through the window of Jan's restaurant on Beverly Boulevard at 4 a.m. She was arrested for drunk driving. With her Paramount career already gone and her husband having divorced her, there was no one to protect the once-glamorous star from the garish press coverage she received. The L.A. Times had a field day with the story. She was photographed with a cop having a sobriety check and was quoted as saying, "I had a few drinks. I had two. No, four. Oh, I don't know how many I had. It's nobody's business anyway."

Fifteen years earlier it had all looked so wonderful. A Paramount casting executive had given two kids a ride, and they were talking about the gorgeous girl called the "Hedy Lamar of Santa Monica High School." Paramount sent for the girl, and she came. But she was pathologically shy and could hardly utter a word. Paramount did not care. She was so gorgeous. They could get an acting coach. And after two-bit performances, she was cast as Stella Meredith in the 1944 ghost story classic The Uninvited. The film made a mint and received great reviews. The New York Times stated, "Gail Russell is wistful and gracious as the curiously moonstruck girl." Stardom was on the horizon. Little did anyone know that Gail Russell was so nervous and stage struck that she had to fortify herself with a few drinks just to do a scene. Sheets were even hung so she would not feel the stares of the crew. She lost weight and was not sure being a movie star was what she wanted. Immediately after making another thriller, The Unseen, Gail and Diana Lynn co-starred in the classic Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. The film was another big hit, and Gail Russell's future seemed assured. No one paid much attention that Gail and her new found friend Diana Lynn went out drinking almost every night. Why not? She was young, gorgeous and a big star.

The rest of the '40s gave her more wonderful parts, including Calcutta with Alan Ladd and the John Wayne Western Angel and the Badman. She was lovely and touching in this cult classic. Years later, Pauline Kael would write about the film, "It is easily distinguisable from other Wayne Westerns: Gail Russell, of the sexy sad eyes, is the Quaker heroine—one of the few western heroines who suggests softness and body warmth." Unfortunately, John Wayne's wife—also an alcoholic—thought that Wayne and Russell were having an affair. When Wayne chose Gail as his co-star again the following year in Wake of the Red Witch, the wife was convinced and later cited Russell in her divorce case against John Wayne.

Gail Russell made two more classics in the 1940s—Moonrise and Night Has A Thousand Eyes. But her increasing reliance on alcohol to get through a film was so well known that Paramount did not re-sign her when her contract ended in 1950. But happiness still seemed to be in Gail's future. In 1949 she married sexy Guy Madison after a long courtship. Madison's career after the war was stalled, but he would soon find fame on TV as Wild Bill Hickock. Guy Madison was a gorgeous blond hunk discovered by legendary gay talent scout Henry Willson (he would find Rock Hudson, Rory Calhoun and a host of others). So there were rumors about Guy's sexuality, and eventually about Gail too. Whatever the truth, the marriage lasted five years, and Madison divorced Russell in 1954. Russell tried Alcoholics Anonymous and made every effort to stop drinking. Nothing helped. By the time she drove into Jan's front window, her career and life were in a downward spiral.

John Wayne came to her aid and got her a few movie roles. She had one good one left as the tormented Carol Morrow in The Tattered Dress. Russell had a great courtroom scene and later shot down Jack Carson on the steps. It looked like Russell might still have a film future. She was still very pretty, and there was hope that she might survive. But on August 27, 1961, she was found dead in her small Brentwood apartment. She had been drinking for days. Everything was over.

Gail Russell probably summed up her disastrous life succinctly when she said, "I was a sad character. I was sad because of myself. I didn't have any confidence. I didn't believe I had any talent. I didn't know how to have fun. I was afraid. I don't know exactly of what—of life, I guess."

Gail Russell was a beautiful woman with a luminous cinematic presence. As Pauline Kael wrote about her first performance in The Uninvited, "Gail Russell had an eerie luster, and she's lovely as the mysterious young girl." Watching Gail Russell in any of her '40s films, it is hard to fathom the grim ending that fate had for her. I have always had an affinity for Gail Russell. My mother told me that the night before I was born, she went to see The Uninvited, and in the climatic scene where the doors suddenly blow open, she jumped in her seat so hard that I was born the next day—July 7—a bit early! And I can never drive down Beverly past Jan's Coffee Shop without thinking of Gail's grim July 6, 1957, date with notoriety. I would turn 13 the next day, and as a lonely gay teen in the midwest was already quite smitten with the gorgeous Gail Russell. Fifty years later, I still am.